Book Review : "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”



Our actions define us, serve as an external interface to what lies within us. The ability of an individual to act (or react) to their surroundings, is not a uniquely human trait. But what sets humanity apart from most other species, is our unique characteristic of collective behavior, be it represented by the more populous 'herd mentality,' or the numerous 'counter-culture movements' that thrive in each other's shadows. Groups, and by extension, societies, are driven to actions that fulfill their respective agendas; and if the resulting consequences make us "feel good," the society is allowed to bask in a few moments of collective accomplishment - exhorting the virtues of their respective world-view.

Our society seems to place a higher premium on reactions, than our ability to put our intentions into proactive labor. What is often left unsaid, unexplored, typically in a populist movement, is the absence of action; and how the said absence affects those who are not 'us.' While technology serves as a bridge to bring the world closer, it has also served as a primary means of dehumanization. We engage in an instant conversation with someone half a world away, yet the sterile means of communication keeps us sufficiently distant from their lives. Images of cities torn apart by conflict sadden us, while we consume them with our daily breakfast. Our ability to multitask has also inadvertently, or not, transformed our selves into multiple fragments that are shielded by the boundaries of the roles that every task demands. This distancing of self from the world that is at once distant and accessible, makes us a participant in the actions of others - as active accomplices, or as silent spectators. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" explores this silent complicity through equal levels of absurdity and horror. Set in a small unnamed village in the South America, it begins with the anonymous (believed to be Garcia himself, by some) author returning back to his village to investigate a crime that occurred twenty-seven years ago.

A young man, Santiago Nasar, is brutally hacked on the doorstep of his own home in a hours of early morning, by twin brothers - Pedro and Pablo Vicario. The apparent reason for this murder is the confession by their sister, Angela Vicario, that Santiago was her lover who deflowered her before she was married off, and then abandoned, by another man. The killing is an act of revenge on the parts of the brothers, seeking to restore honor to their family name. The interesting part about the crime is that the brothers broadcast their motives to the entire community hours before they commit the crime, and while a few individuals show courage to deter them from pursuing their intentions the first time around, the entire village is a mute spectator when the crime is eventually consummated, in rich gory detail for the reader to witness. It feels as if the entire community is pulled back from acting, firstly, due to an inertia induced by disbelief, and then the inability to process the improbable event as it unfolds before their eyes.

The narrative is modeled after a journalistic enquiry - thorough in exposition of facts that are at times contradictory, filtered through a haze of memories whose details have been transformed by the years. The author records everything, but shows us nothing, until the very end. Behavior, quotes, and histories associated with people and places, are documented in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the author wishes to relinquish the responsibility of judgement directly in the hands of the reader. There are about thirty characters that appear intermittently through the narrative, and some more who are meticulously named, and then promptly forgotten once their testimony is recorded. Garcia seems to be saying - the names do not matter, the people do not matter - because they could be anybody, in any place, in any time. The only name that seems to linger in the reader's memory is that of the victim - Santiago Nasar. 

Many have described Garcia's works as timeless, and the praise is evident in the parallels that the story draws with contemporary global events. Garcia does not 'unmask' the silent apathy, the silent complicity of the society as it witnesses a crime taking place, as much as he rips it apart, painfully, gradually, making us hyper-aware of the horrors that we choose to ignore due to our well-meaning silence. This is not only a story, but a journalistic endeavor on the part of the author to get to the bottom of the 'truth,' whatever shape or form it may be in. The text is presented to the reader as a chronicle, albeit with a non-linear progression that is useful in unraveling a mystery. The mystery at the root of the narrative is not murder of Santiago Nasar. The author makes it abundantly clear that the crime took place in the first line of the novella, nor is the mystery about who did it. The real mystery, the real quest that brings back the narrator to the scene of crime after twenty-seven restless years (we may assume, based on the intensity and scope of the investigation) is how a supposedly tightly-knit and morally upright community, in full possession of facts leading up to the event, not only allowed the crime to happen, but also chose to be a complicit accomplice by being a silent spectator?

The translation by Gregory Rabassa preserves the distance, the specificity of idioms, and the Spanish flavor in the description of life in a somewhat remote village in South America in the early 20th century. It is a difficult matter to make a complicated, sympathetic, yet distant social commentary in a hundred-odd pages, but Garcia manages to do so with aplomb, proving yet again that he possesses a complete mastery of the medium he chooses to speak through!

Very highly recommended!
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